A growing number of state governments have adopted lead-free laws requiring plumbers to phase out the use of lead-containing plumbing fixtures. In many areas, plumbers are completely restricted from installing fixtures that may contain lead. Despite recent legislation and an outpour of support from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lead-free laws have left many plumbers scratching their heads.
The Danger of Lead
According to the EPA, infants and children who drink water containing excessive lead could experience delayed physical and mental development, while adults who consume it could develop kidney problems or high blood pressure. The EPA also concludes that while most lead exposure comes from ingesting paint chips or inhaling dust, 10% to 20% of human exposure might come from lead found in drinking water.
Because of the dangers posed by lead exposure, Vermont and California have both enforced lead-free laws, which minimize the acceptable amount of lead found in consumer products, including plumbing fixtures.
"The law in Vermont (Act 193) is intended to phase out most lead from consumer products, including plumbing fixtures and solder," says Rob McDougall, Vermont’s assistant attorney general. "Since January 1, 2010, the concentration of lead in plumbing fixtures – pipes, fittings and fixtures used to convey or dispense water for human consumption – is limited to a 'weighted average' of .25% for fixtures and.20% for solder or flux for plumbing."
California passed its similar lead-free law (AB 1953) in January 2010 as well. "Lead-free faucets can reduce the potential for lead in drinking water and the adverse health effects associated with lead exposure," says Ken August, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health.
Are the Risks Overblown?
Although no one denies the health risks, some plumbers question the reality of lead dangers.
"I don’t think the little bit of lead content usually in faucets is ever going to do anything substantial," says John Baethke, president of John Baethke & Son Plumbing, Heating & Cooling, based in Chicago. "I think it would take 20 lifetimes of drinking the water. It definitely would never affect my decision to buy faucets."
Tommy O’Grady, president of Effective Plumbing in New York, agrees that the health risks of the small amount of lead found in plumbing fixtures are exaggerated.
"Everyone knows that lead is not good," O’Grady says. "But they make more out if than it really is." Though lead-free laws might be an overreaction, O’Grady says, they don’t hinder the profession at all. The only drawback is the cost of fixture replacement, he says.
A Small Step, but a Step Forward Nonetheless
"I think it’s important to lessen any of the severe health effects to the domestic water distribution systems," says Michael McGann, CIPE, CPI, CCDI, AGP, an Illinois-certified plumbing inspector working for the City of Chicago. "Across the board, I think lead-free legislation is a good thing."
In general, McGann says that lead-free legislation is a marked improvement in plumbing, even if it’s a small improvement. He says these laws lengthen the manufacturing process of faucets, which will result in a more thorough production process that will also create more jobs. Plus, he adds, if the lead-free laws substantially benefit anything, it’s the public’s peace of mind, which makes the plumbing inspector’s job easier to promote as a safe water distribution system.
The Future of Lead in Drinking Water Legislation
August says that although some argue these laws might exaggerate the issue, no amount of lead can be considered harmless.
"There is no known safe level of lead in the body," August says. "Small amounts of lead can build up in the body and cause lifelong learning and behavior problems."
McDougall agrees and says Vermont’s law is a necessary step to eliminate known sources of lead before exposure occurs.
"Given the EPA’s findings, this office would strongly disagree with a claim that laws like Act 193 are unnecessary," he says.
Apparently, President Obama agrees. He recently signed into law S. 3874, The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which will make California’s and Vermont’s standards nationwide and decrease government allowance of lead in fixtures from the current 8% to .2%. The law allows for a 36-month implementation period, after which manufacturers are expected to comply.
However, O’Grady believes there’s no reason to put off complying, even if you believe that the lead-free laws do little to protect against an already minimal risk. "It’s the way the industry is going," he says, "and it’s time to get with the program."